19th century, Arts, Humanities

“O, Portia! take my heart”: Ellen Terry and the Aesthetics of Costume

By Olivia Wrafter

“In the 1820s and 1830s […] theatre productions in London were becoming more elaborate in their setting, dressing and ‘getting up’” (Taylor 1993, 3).  Shakespeare productions in the Victorian era were marked by a sumptuous and decadent attention to visual artistry. A particularly prominent example of the attention to the aesthetics of staging enjoyed by the Victorians was seen during Henry Irving’s time as Theatre Manager of The Lyceum Theatre. Irving was manager of the Lyceum from 1878, appointing Bram Stoker as his Business Manager, and often starring himself in his productions of Shakespeare, as male lead, opposite Ellen Terry. Irving and Terry presided over the Shakespearean stage at the Lyceum for 20 years, Terry reigning as Britain’s leading Shakespearean actress until she left the Lyceum in 1902. 

Terry’s influence over the sumptuous visuals of Irving’s Lyceum was marked. For Terry, “far from hampering the acting, a beautiful and congruous background and harmonious costumes, representing accurately the spirit of the time in which the play is supposed to move, ought to help and inspire the actor” (Terry 1908). By the time of Terry’s dominance over the Shakespearean stage at the Lyceum, the role of the female costume was eclipsing even the most decadent set that Irving could see produced. Terry’s success as the Lyceum’s leading lady, and her remarkable performances in Shakespeare’s lead female roles opposite Irving, was the climax of Victorian Shakespearean aesthetics. Isaac comments: “the level of influence she was able to exercise over her stage dress and the immense sums invested in many of her spectacular costumes was unusual” (2018). Terry was widely acclaimed by Victorian critics and theatre goers, and her cultivation of historical costume was the key to her ascension as “the decadent icon of the fin de siècle” (Jones 2002). Isaac further points out that “Terry ensured that such costumes were ‘a natural extension of her art, not a superimposition upon it” (Isaac, Our Lady of the Lyceum). As such, we can see the progressively increasing elaborateness of Terry’s costumes during her career as indicative of a desire to further submerge her audience in the spirit of the performance, and a growing understanding of the transformative capability of costume. 

Even prior to her reign at the Lyceum, in 1875, Terry’s performance of Portia in the Bancrofts’ The Merchant of Venice, was one in which her costume attracted much attention. Godwin’s noting that “Portia would do her shopping probably at Padua, and would therefore follow the fashions of the mainland”[1] is more eloquently described by Terry in her lecture, The Triumphant Women: “Portia is the fruit of the Renaissance, the child of a period of beautiful clothes, beautiful cities, beautiful houses, beautiful ideas. She speaks the beautiful language of inspired poetry. Wreck that beauty, and the part goes to pieces.”[2] Such a statement is a convincing argument for realistic period costume. Terry realised the importance of context to the role of her character and acknowledged the impact of culture upon the human psyche. Portia is one and the same with her environment (clothes, cities, houses etc) and so to decontextualise the part, to her, was a fool’s errand. Terry took this agenda to the upmost limits, expending inordinate time and energy into her sumptuous costumes (figure 1).

Clémence, W., Merchant of Venice, Miss Ellen Terry as Portia [graphic’ / W. Clémence. (1887), Call #: ART Box C625 no. 1. Taken from LUNA: Folger Digital Image Collection, Digital Image File Name 34410. Used by permission of the Folger Shakespeare Library under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. https://luna.folger.edu/luna/servlet/s/sw8h5a.

As Portia, Terry is meticulously dressed in the fashion of the age; her vast skirts, ruffled collar, feathered fan and layers of jewellery realistically consistent with her wealth – a woman who is “sick that surfeit with too much” (Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice, 1.2.5). But Terry equally averred that “it is not always necessary to spend a great deal of money. I think I may say, without boasting, that I have always been well dressed on the stage, but I doubt if there has ever been a more cheaply dressed actress’” (1911, 293).

Yet such was the overwhelming beauty of Terry’s costume, that she became the subject of Wilde’s sonnet Portia (To Ellen Terry). The title and its dedication confuse the distinction between actress and character, one that is undoubtedly helped by the employment of the costume which becomes the focus of the dedicatory poem:

Portia by Oscar Wilde

(To Ellen Terry)

I marvel not Bassanio was so bold
To peril all he had upon the lead,
Or that proud Aragon bent low his head
Or that Morocco’s fiery heart grew cold:
For in that gorgeous dress of beaten gold
Which is more golden than the golden sun
No woman Veronese looked upon
Was half so fair as thou whom I behold.
Yet fairer when with wisdom as your shield
The sober-suited lawyer’s gown you donned,
And would not let the laws of Venice yield
Antonio’s heart to that accursed Jew –
O, Portia! take my heart: it is thy due:
I think I will not quarrel with the Bond.

Yet, as Wilde goes on to praise, Terry was “yet fairer when with wisdom as your shield / The sober-suited lawyer’s gown you donned” (Wilde, Portia) (her costume is shown in figure 2).


George W. Baldry, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ellen_Terry_as_Portia.jpg

The “wisdom” of the “shield” that is costume, and its importance in the dramatization of literature, is described by Terry when she explains Bassanio’s failure to recognise his lover whilst she is robed in, what to the audience, must seem an absurdly penetrable costume, thus: “We must not think that he is stupid because of his failure to recognise Portia in her lawyer’s robe at the trial. The impenetrableness of a disguise is a dramatic convention. Shakespeare employs it over and over again” (Terry, Four Lectures, 119).

Terry’s “vivid sense of visual style” culminated in “Irving’s 1888–9 production of Macbeth at the Lyceum […] a high-water mark of the unified production, in the grand historical-pictorial style, with Ellen Terry’s costume as Lady Macbeth, depicted in John Singer Sargent’s striking painting of her in character, as one of the most exotic achievements of the costumier’s art” (Jackson, 16). The elaborate “straight thirteenth-century dress”[1] (Figures 5 and 6) is an enduring image of Victorian Shakespeare, and is the epitome of the era’s aesthetic and dramatic philosophy.

John Singer Sargent, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ellen_Terry_as_Lady_Macbeth.jpg

Wilde described Terry’s visit to Sargent’s studio in Tite Street thus; “the street that on a wet and dreary morning has vouchsafed the vision of Lady Macbeth in full regalia magnificently seated in a four-wheeler can never again be as other streets: it must always be full of wonderful possibilities.”[1] John Stokes misunderstands the sentiments of this scenario, when he deduces, “in other words, neither theatre nor painting have much to do with real life, except by transforming it” (Stokes, 183). The vividly literal description of Terry’s arrival at Tite Street, has all too much to do with real life. Precisely because Terry is wearing the Lady Macbeth costume, Wilde perceives that is Lady Macbeth that is arriving at Tite Street. The sentiment here is that the success of Victorian stage costume is its almost painful proximity to real life. The costume is so successful that it can as such, be taken off the stage, and still fulfil its transformative purpose: the historical costume allows us to access Shakespeare as real life.

Terry’s wonderful costumes prove to us that in fact, their employment in the theatre is just as critical to the success of the reproduction of Shakespeare’s text as the actor’s capability upon the stage. The use of historical, and as some might say, overwrought, costumes, takes us to that reality, we are transported to the text, and its contextual world, rather than the text transported to us. Period costume allows for full immersion in the world of Shakespeare, such as he intended it. As Terry concludes, “No one can tell us how Shakespeare got what we call ‘local colour’. He may have been to Italy. He may not. It is ‘as you like it’. His Venetian topography is amazingly accurate, but that proves nothing. […] It does not matter. What does matter is that the genius of the man enabled him in The Merchant of Venice to give the very echo to the place where the Adriatic is enthroned. This is why I believe in representing Portia as a Venetian lady” (Terry, 115). As Terry so eloquently puts it, the “local colour” of Shakespeare is integral to the text, and to remove it from staging, from costume, is to do a disservice to the magnificent reality Shakespeare invites us to share with him.


[1] Oscar Wilde in Hesketh Pearson, The Life of Oscar Wilde (London: Methuen, 1947), p.114.

[1] Alice Comyns Carr, Mrs. J. Comyns-Carr’s Reminiscences, (London: Hutchinson,1962), pp.211.

[1] E.W. Godwin, Shakespeare Variorum Edition, p.387.

[2] Ellen Terry, Four Lectures on Shakespeare, ed. By Christopher St. John, (London: Martin Hopkinson Ltd, 1932), p.116.



References and Further Reading

Isaac, Veronica, ‘”A Well-dressed Actress”: Exploring the Theatrical Wardrobe of Ellen Terry’ in Costume 52.1 (2018): 74-96, http://solo.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/permalink/f/1lj314/TN_edinburgh10.3366/cost.2018.0048, [29/09/2020].

Jones, Jonathon, ‘Sargent’s Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth’ in Guardian,12 January 2002.

National Trust, Smallhythe Place, Kent, (Accredited Museum), Public Collections, http://www.nationaltrustcollections.org.uk/results?Collections=44702ad5fffffe07538783c9fd59a630.

Stokes, John, ‘”Shopping in Byzantium”: Oscar Wilde as Shakespeare Critic’ in Victorian Shakespeare: Theatre, Drama and Performance, eds. Gail Marshall and Adrian Poole, (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), V.2.

Taylor, George, Players and Performances in the Victorian Theatre (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1993).

Terry, Ellen, Four Lectures on Shakespeare, ed. By Christopher St. John, (London: Martin Hopkinson Ltd, 1932).

Terry, Ellen, ‘Some Ideas on Stage Decoration’ in McClures Magazine (January 1911).

Terry, Ellen, The Story of My Life, (New York: Doubleday, Page & Co., 1908), http://www.gutenberg.org/files/12326/12326-h/12326-h.htm#TRAINING, [29.09.2020].

Wilde, Oscar, ‘Shakespeare on Scenery’ in The Dramatic Review, (14/03/1885), < https://coldnoon.com/magazine/classics/shakespeare-on-scenery/>, [29/09/2020].

            Wilde, Oscar, The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde, (London: HarperCollins, 2003).

            WildeOscar, The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde, Vol. 6: Journalism, Vol. 1, (Oxford: OUP, 2013), https://www.oxfordscholarlyeditions.com/view/10.1093/actrade/9780198119647.book.1/actrade-9780198119647-book-1>, [29/09/2020].

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